Bandwidth an issue for wired vehicles

‘Driverless’ safety features at risk if wireless signals are interrupted

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WASHINGTON — The air may seem endless, but the airwaves are not, and automotive and technology experts fear competition for them may impede their visionary future of the automobile.

The Transportation Department announced Monday that it is moving forward with what is known as “connected-vehicle technology,” the first step toward driverless vehicles.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the announcement a watershed moment in the nation’s transportation history — akin to the launch of the interstate highway system or a “moonshot.” He said connecting all of the nation’s vehicles could reduce non-alcohol-related traffic accidents by as much as 80 percent, preventing roughly 5.1 million accidents a year and saving 18,000 lives.

The system creates the capacity for cars to communicate directly with the other cars around them using onboard computers and a slice of airwave bandwidth.

But decisions governing bandwidth use are the province of the Federal Communications Commission. In a letter to the FCC, signed by more than 60 automakers, academics and transportation officials, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America appealed to he federal agency to protect the necessary bandwidth from encroachment.

“With over 30,000 deaths on our nation’s roads every year, we also believe it is critical that efforts to open up additional spectrum do not come at the expense of revolutionary life-saving technologies,” the letter said.

The big quandary with sharing bandwidth is fairly simple: No one is quite sure how to do it.

Even the discussion of it quickly becomes confused. If a vehicle is using Wi-Fi and a connected-vehicle message comes in — “icy pavement ahead, prepare to brake” — does that safety warning override the Wi-Fi signal?

“I don’t think we’re at that point yet, which is why we’re doing a lot of work to study this exact question,” said David Friedman, acting director of the National Highway Traffic Administration. “If the technology can advance to the point where it can be shared, then great, all the better for everyone.”

While FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reassured Congress last month that the frequency to be used to connect cars would be protected, his agency may once more be cast in the role of Solomon as the White House supports both expansion of Wi-Fi and the promise of connected- vehicle technology.

Two years ago, the FCC squelched a multibillion-dollar initiative by Reston, Va.-based LightSquared, which promised to provide Wi-Fi throughout the country. The company wanted to use a bandwidth next to the one that carries GPS signals, and GPS proponents joined forces with the aviation industry with concerns that Wi-Fi would disrupt their signal.

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